Immigration critics find their champion in Trump
The White House’s endorsement of legislation limiting legal immigration is a watershed moment for groups that have been pushing the idea for years.
Organizations calling for a reduction to legal immigration had in the past been relegated to the political fringes, with leaders in both parties shying away from direct support for their cause.
But the election of President Trump has fundamentally reshaped the politics of immigration, bringing their ideas into the mainstream debate.
Trump on Wednesday appeared alongside Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ala.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) to promote the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, which would cut legal immigration to the U.S. in half.
Some of the most prominent organizations and think tanks that advocate for reduced immigration, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA, enthusiastically backed the bill.
“President Trump, and bill sponsors Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, should be applauded for recognizing the current dysfunction of our outdated immigration policies that, unlike the rest of the nation, have been stuck in a time warp for the last 50 years,” said Dan Stein, president of FAIR, in support of the RAISE Act.
The bill would halve the number of new green cards each year and establish new conditions for permanent residency, including a requirement for potential immigrants to learn English before moving to the United States.
Pro-immigrant groups slammed the measure, calling it a “nativist agenda.”
“Let’s be clear: This legislation has absolutely nothing to do with helping our economy and everything to do with playing up the Trump administration’s nativist agenda and boosting support from his base after failing to deliver his campaign promises on health care,” said Lizet Ocampo, political Director of People for the American Way.
Pro-immigration advocates have long accused the reductionist groups of harboring an extreme agenda.
FAIR and NumbersUSA were founded by John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist who espoused population control ideas based on an extreme environmentalist agenda. CIS, a think tank that studies immigration and its effects, started as a project within FAIR and was later spun off as an independent organization.
Mario H. López, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a center-right advocacy organization, said they’re “eugenics-loving environmental population-control groups.”
Most damning in the eyes of Tanton group detractors is their listing as “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights advocacy organization.
But the Tanton groups energetically contest those categorizations.
“The wickedness of the SPLC’s blacklist lies in the fact that it conflates groups that really do preach hatred, such as the Ku Klux Klan and Nation of Islam, with ones that simply do not share the SPLC’s political preferences,” wrote Mark Kirkorian, president of CIS, in a March op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing his think tank’s inclusion in SPLC’s list.
There’s little doubt that the Tanton groups have the ear of the Trump administration when it comes to immigration policy.
Jon Feere, a former policy analyst for CIS, and Julie Kirchner, former director of FAIR, were hired in April as high-level advisors within the Department of Homeland Security.
And proposed legislation like the RAISE Act is consistent with the groups’ argument that immigration — legal or illegal — is unsustainably high.
That viewpoint has support from top White House policy advisors like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, who are both advocates of reduced immigration.
Miller was a longtime aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) before taking on a position as White House adviser.
López said Miller was “one of FAIR’s chief enablers in his time in the Senate with [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions.”
Other voices in the Trump administration also expressed support for the bill.
“The President understands that stopping the abuse of our country’s immigration and visa system is essential to our nation’s economic success,” said Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta in a statement. “The RAISE ACT rolls back regulations that put American workers and businesses at a disadvantage. It puts America First.”
Still, opponents of reductionist policies are unlikely to temper their criticism of what they view as racially motivated ideas.
And while the Tanton groups are prolific in their analytical and advocacy efforts, other researchers often dispute their findings.
“This is something that has been proposed again and again,” said Michael Clemens, a development economist at the Center for Global Development, a prominent Washington, D.C. think tank.
Clemens cited the examples of Chinese exclusion, a 1924 “legal flush” to remove Eastern European immigrants and the end of the Bracero program, a temporary worker exchange program between the United States and Mexico.
“In every one of those cases, the justification rolled out in the political sphere was raising wages for U.S. workers,” Clemens said.
“In all of those cases there is no sign at all that it happened.”